Personal stories are powerful. I’m naturally drawn to someone who shares their story openly and honestly. Everything I write, I try to write in a conversational tone, as if we’re sharing some real talk over coffee, or on a run. I get sucked into personal stories far more easily than I do a research paper or the latest media piece on nutrition or politics. So, I get why weight loss stories catch your eye. I get their appeal. I just wish the story was different. I wish it read, “I ditched a diet mentality, starting respecting my body and my natural shape, and improved my health in a meaningful way.” Would that catch your attention as much as weight loss stories like “How I Got This Body” or “How So-and-So Lost XY Pounds”?
I had a subscription to FITNESS magazine in high school. (There are probably eight red flags here, but there’s at least one gold star: I read a quote from a Professor of Nutrition at Penn State University, and realized I could STUDY nutrition. So, thanks for that, FITNESS!) One of the first things I read every month was the weight loss stories. It was always a woman who had shed however many pounds, sharing how she did it. What she ate every day, how she exercised, what she changed, how she indulged, and how much better she felt now that she was lighter, fitter, and eating less. I looked forward to these features every week. It gave me an arsenal of food rules and lifestyle tips. It fed the earliest hunger pangs of my eating disorder. I took tips from each weight loss person. I was seventeen years old, already obsessed.
These weight loss stories were also my first nutrition case studies; I had to know what they were doing, and of course had to see some of those before and after photos. The deadpan look as they contemplate “life before,” and the radiant “after” smile that says, “My life is SO MUCH BETTER NOW!” It makes you think your life could be better, too…in just a few pounds.
What is so fascinating about these weight loss stories?
Why can’t we resist a before and after photo? Why can’t we resist a click on those “How To” weight loss features? Why do both of those things result in an immediate self-assessment?
Am I eating too much? Could I just switch to yogurt for breakfast and look like that? If I try that cleanse, I’ll feel radiant in my after photo too, right? If I ran a few more miles each week, my legs will tone up like that. If I do XYZ, maybe I’ll look like Lady A, too.
My guess is the “reduced risk of type 2 diabetes” or “reversed cardiac disease risk” or “no need for blood pressure medication” isn’t the story’s seller. (They’re also not a guarantee with weight loss in the first place. More on that later.) Those tag lines aren’t catching as much attention. Instead, the tendency is to stare at someone’s body, internalize weight loss stories or fitness accomplishments, and compare them to your own.
Weight loss stories get clicks and sell products.
Recently, Mario Fraioli’s weekly running-focused newsletter, the morning shakeout, mentioned a former elite runner from Great Britain who gained weight and lost fitness. To get back in shape, he made a bet with his friends and a lofty 5K goal (considering his current fitness level). A few weeks later, Mario followed up on that weight loss story–he said it was one of the newsletter’s highest viewed links. Of course, I thought.
The Guardian’s piece, “Why we fell for clean eating”, is a long read about how and why the “eat clean” mantra took stronghold and caused myriad disordered eating patterns. It tells of how bloggers and social media influencers (i.e. people with large followings who tell you what to do because they did it once so OBVIOUSLY it works) have profited, in a big way, on food rules backed by little to no scientific evidence. It’s yet another example of the tendency to judge health on appearance. If an attractive, thin blonde woman says one cleanse is the key to health, she’ll sell it because she believes it and she looks good saying it. It’s almost too easy. Marketing 101.
(Need I elaborate on Oprah’s Weight Watchers endorsement? Marketing and Investing 401.)
Weight loss stories are dramatized and idolized.
Voyeurism is hard to resist. Weight loss is personal tale of control and sticking to the rules—the more dramatic, the better. Fitness accomplishments are more impressive if they’re fast. PRs garner unsolicited accolades. It’s intoxicating. Weight is also deeply personal. A willingness to share a glimpse into the numbers—which should mean little to nothing to someone else—is to take down the fourth wall.
If you stopped looking at before and after photos, stopped reading weight loss stories and scanning personal food logs published on the internet or via Instagram, how would you go about your day? What would that change about the way you eat, exercise, or measure your health? How much better would you feel about your own story?
Your body doesn’t have to look like their body. You don’t have to run a 5K PR to be fit. Your life isn’t exactly like someone else’s. Their accomplishments don’t have to be yours.
Weight loss isn’t a guaranteed path to better health.
I’ve adopted the Health at Every Size (HAES) philosophy. I practice, and teach clients, Intuitive Eating. I’ve let go of the weight stigma instilled in me as a teenager—by health magazines and diet culture—the same stigma confirmed to me as nutrition student and then a new dietitian. I’m joining the ranks in spreading a weight-neutral, anti-diet message. This doesn’t mean weight loss or gain may improve your health; it means it’s not a guarantee. I believe your body has a set point at which you are healthy; that’s different for every individual. I do not believe your BMI or weight alone will tell me much, if anything, about your health. I certainly don’t believe that looking at a photo of someone’s weight loss, or 16-minute 5K, tells me anything about their health.
This is a battle against the scale, against the weight loss stories, and against the healthcare flow.
Healthcare providers may tell someone to lose weight before they try to explain how (sometimes out of their scope, I might add). Healthcare still uses BMI as a standard measure of health, despite evidence that suggests otherwise. Weight is visible, so it’s the first judgment a provider may make. Research has yet to prove being “overweight” (alone) causes chronic health issues, but weight is presumed guilty until proven innocent.
Their story is not your story. Yours is not theirs.
If you find yourself drawn to a tip, detox, cleanse, weight loss story, or fitness goal because of the photo evidence—the body type that accomplished it, or is doling it out—try to reason with your ego. Pause. Take a deep breath. Look away. Repeat this mantra: Their story is not my story. If it’s a harmless interest in reading about how an elite athlete wants to get back into running that offers you an entertaining read, some motivation to try something new or challenge yourself, by all means, dig in. If you’re reading or scanning a weight-loss or journey-back-to-fitness story in an attempt to create a list of rules and guidelines for yourself, please resist. Those rules and guidelines don’t need to control your life. Your weight story is not theirs, and vice versa.
Resist the urge to click on weight loss stories, to buy into what an uncredentialed influencer is selling, or to flip your life around to mirror someone else’s. Resist the urge to double-tap someone’s six-pack selfie if it doesn’t make you feel good about yourself. Resist the urge to control your weight—a futile effort—or manipulate your fitness to fit someone else’s standard.
If you’re following food rules, obsessing over weight, or battling disordered eating, work with an intuitive eating, anti-diet (or eating disorder) dietitian. If you want to accomplish a fitness goal for yourself, hire a coach or personal trainer (that knows their scope!). If you want to be healthier, decide what that means for you and why. Don’t let someone else’s health story write yours.